DIRECTOR: Paul Anderson

CAST: Phillip Seymour Hoffmann, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers


RUNNING TIME: 136 minutes

RATING: ****

This thinly veiled take on L Ron Hubbard features some strong performances which will linger long after you’ve forgotten what the story was actually about.

More a portrait than a slice of life, the film doesn’t set out with any message or a crux of the matter that simply has to be reached. Instead it is a finely drawn, keenly observed picture of a man in search of meaning in his life who comes across another man who offers a different way of looking at the world.

Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after World War II, Freddy Quell (Phoenix) is disillusioned and lost when he meets the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Hoffmann) leader of The Cause.

Out on a boat, on the high seas, Quell learns exercises to clear his emotions and follows Dodd around, getting to know more about the people who follow the appealing leader.

Though they move about the East Coast of America and meet new people all the time, the actual narrative of the film never really progresses and the characters don’t really change.

While the film explores the father-son master-disciple dynamic as well as ideas around times of war leading to a resurgence in spiritual exploration and rootlessness, it is really the acting from the two leads that is most fascinating.

Quell and Dodd dance around each other, each fascinated by the other, but neither really changed by the encounter. Hoffmann is enigmatic as Dodd, hiding a vicious streak underneath the seeming calm. Dodd uses words seemingly to illuminate, but actually obfuscate his intentions, and his son has a telling moment when he talks about how his father simply makes it up as he goes along.

Phoenix is believably troubled by his inner demons, which he hides with his moonshine liquor, but he has trouble articulating his emotions. Beneath the skin and very different verbal abilities, though, these two are very alike – they’ve just found very different ways of externalising the inchoate anger.

The film never comes down clearly on whether the movement is good or bad and doesn’t give a clear-cut resolution to their men’s relationship, or indeed any answers. Instead it is a discordantly scored and elegantly lensed film which uses technique to paint a portrait and emphasises the craft of film-making over the storytelling technique of “and then and then and then”.

If you liked… Magnolia, A Serious Man or The Skin I Live In… you will like this.